It was calm. Cold. It was dark but for the moonlight and starlight and silent except for the bumping and shaking of my gear as I continued to bounce along. I occasionally switched off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust to the moonlight which dimmed or brightened as thin veils of cloud moved across the sky. With my light on I was able to see the road directly in front of me and the stars and moon. When the light was off and my eyes had adjusted I could make out the low rolling blackness of the landscape and discern the horizon line where the solid blackness of the ground met the lighter nighttime sky.
In the distance a car was approaching. It drove slowly but I could hear it many minutes before its lights reached me. I could tell by the sound that it was a small passenger car and I waited for its powerful lights to illuminate the road ahead of me as it passed. Cars heading the other direction temporarily blinded me but those moving with me illuminated in perfect detail the road ahead. I would imprint the general lay of the road in my mind and then follow it after the light had passed. I could also watch where the red taillights went into the distance. Where they disappeared in a certain way there would be a descent. I could watch them climb, turn and eventually disappear and so learn something about the road ahead.
The night around me brightened subtly. The headlights were not yet shining on me but the diffused glow of the car was close enough to cast a barely discernible change.
I looked ahead and waited for my shadow to appear. That was often the first indicator I would get of an approaching car. My shadow would begin infinitely tall and faint. As the cars neared my shadow would stay black as the ground lit up. The shadow would shrink and drift to the side until, as the car passed, it would flash out and only the diminishing red glow of the taillights and the howl of the car would remain.
The car behind me peaked a small rise and the lights shown directly on me. It was still quite distant so the lights barely skimmed the surface of the road, only catching the top edges of gravel and leaving the rest of the surface in complete darkness. I had never seen such an illusion before but looking down I could only see the tiny points of rock catching the light but could not see the road itself. I moved over a surreal blackness containing hundreds of small points of light, exactly like small stars. It was otherworldly and beautiful. The small points of light stretched out to look like lines as they whisked past my front wheel. After several moments the car shifted angles and the illusion was broken. The rough road lit up completely in the warm yellow lights of the car as my shadow became more defined and shortened and then broke. The car passed slowly leaving a dense cloud of dust in the air. Still and quiet returned again.
It was nearly midnight when I saw the sign. I knew I was close to the junction, the place where my secondary road met back with the main highway. The sign was for a Hospedaje; a place where truckers and travelers could buy a meal and a bed for the night. I had very little hope that there would be any sign of life there this late at night but I couldn't help think that I just might get to step inside and warm up over a cup of coffee.
I reached the junction and although I was dismayed to discover that it was still unpaved, still rough, I was relieved as it indicated that taking the road I had been struggling along was maybe not such a terrible mistake after all.
I bumped slowly around a curve in the road and saw in the distance the lights of a building and the lights of a semi parked next to it. That was reason to rejoice. I had long since learned that the pairing of building and truck along the highway usually meant a rest stop, and the fact that both still had their lights on was a good sign that someone there was still awake. In moments like this I always tried to prevent myself feeling too hopeful. I could arrive there expecting something good and find nothing other than an angry dog, or a power transformer or a water tank.
As I neared I realized that the building was the Hospedaje and that the lights were still on inside. I pulled up and lightly chuckled at my little victory as I climbed off the bike. My feet had become so cold that walking on them felt sharp and painful.
I pushed my way inside to find a comfortable little restaurant. There were native decorations along with old coca cola signs covering the walls. A rack of souvenirs stood just beyond the door. It was warm inside.
A man had heard me enter and appeared from the kitchen. He was strange looking; the type of man who puts too much care into his physical appearance with an unnatural looking result. He was balding but wore a heavy amount of grease in his remaining hair which was combed down close to his scalp. His hands were soft and a light sheen reflected off the oils on his face.
'Hello,' I said, 'are you open?'
'No, no the kitchen is closed. It's all closed.' He said, gesturing around. The restaurant was completely empty and mostly dark.
'I just want coffee.' I said, aware of the note of pleading urgency in my voice. I was thinking, 'Don't you see me? How could you turn me out? Don't you know how cold it is out there? I am asking for very little.' 'Coffee? With milk?' I continued.
He regarded me for a moment and then answered in his soft, high voice.
'Yes we have coffee with milk do you want the milk hot or cold?'
'Hot. Please.' I smiled, glad that I had been accepted and sat down at the bar as the man retreated to the kitchen, poured some milk into an aluminum cup, lit the propane stove and set the cup on the flame.
There was a flat panel television hung on the wall. As I waited I watched as a movie played without sound. It was the new King Kong movie. Hundreds of giant dinosaurs were charging down a ravine as crazily and aggressively as the traffic in a Central American city. In the rush they were crushing everything beneath them except for the main characters and a few others to make it more believable. 'Right, more believable.'
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road. I had bought the only food he would sell me: four sleeves of cheap, pre-packaged cookies. I had also learned some useful information: there was nothing open in San Sebastian, the pavement didn't start until the border with Argentina and the service station in Rio Grande was open 24 hours.
The border was 15 Kilometers away and I reached it a bit more than an hour later. The crossing was quiet and easy. Border crossing are commonly confusing, crowded and require a great deal of time, but at one in the morning this crossing was a matter of two stamps in roughly as many minutes and I was back on the road. What was more, the road was paved.
The road climbed over a small range and dropped down to the ocean. The temperature crept lower, hovering just above freezing. The moon disappeared behind thickening clouds and the road was empty. In the still night, on the smooth asphalt, I flew. Standing on the pedals I raced the 80 dark kilometers from the border to Rio Grande.
It was still dark at 5:30 when I reached the city. Rio Grande turned out to be a small oil town, empty and industrial, well lit by hundreds of orange street lights. As I drew deeper into the town I looked around anxiously for the service station, hoping that my information was correct. After a period the lights became less common. There were no more houses and I was worried that the city was already ending and that I had not seen any places that would possibly serve food or drink. If I didn't refuel in Rio Grande I would be in serious trouble in trying to reach Talhuin, the last small town before Ushuaia, 92 Kilometers away. I saw a man walking along the sidewalk with a heavy jacket over his sweatshirt. He had the hood pulled up over his head and walked with the stomping stride of a man trudging to work.
I pulled over next to him and called out.
'Excuse me? Hello! Hi.' The man stopped and looked curiously at me. 'Is there a service station here?'
He approached me slowly, looking with relaxed curiosity at my strange appearance. I could tell that I was in danger of falling into a long conversation, something I didn't have the time or the energy for.
'Yes yes, yes there's a service station there,' he pointed back the way I had come, 'down by the port.'
'Is it close? How far is it?' I asked. I had had identical conversations for thousands of miles.
'Ach! It's close. Not far it is here. Or, maybe closer there is another, just follow straight ahead,' he pointed down the way I was going. 'Where are you traveling from?'
'Alaska. Is it open? Do they serve food and everything there?'
'Alaska? On Bike? Peddling only? Nothing more?'
'Yeah purely on bike... but they serve food there and they are open 24 hours?'
'Yes yes, no problem. It is one... two, three, four... four blocks and then you will find the roundabout and it is there. The road on the right will go into the town and then you just go straight and the road will go and curve...' he meandered along a lengthy explanation of where the road went. I knew I merely had to follow the signs but I did not interrupt him.
'... and it's just past the roundabout and you'll see the service station on the right so just stay to the right on the roundabout and then continue directly ahead afterwards. How does Argentina appeal to you?'
'Oh I like Argentina very much. Thank you very much for the help. Thank you,' and I moved off.
The service station was exactly where he described and I pulled up nearly shaking with exhaustion and relief. I rode right up to the front door and my heart plummeted. It was dark inside and the door was locked. It was closed. 'No. Wait. Look around. Find someone. Get help.'
I noticed an attendant fueling a car across the lot. I rode over and asked when the shop opened,
'Not until 7:30.'
'7:30!' I looked around. I must have looked quite tired and anxious.
'Is there another shop here? One that is open now in that I can buy food?'
He paused and thought, I waited nervously.
'Ehh... Yes! Yes. Here, nothing more.' He said gesturing just down the street.
'Right here? What is it called?' I had long since learned to get the names of these places as finding them is rarely as easy as the helpful locals make it seem. He told me and I rode off slowly, looking for the shop.